Brian Kelly spring ball

Open practice gives first look at 2011 Irish

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With Notre Dame’s star-studded coaching clinic providing an open door to over 1,000 high school coaches, it also gave the media the opportunity to get their first unfiltered look at the 2011 Irish football team.

In a Loftus Center pushing capacity, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff put the team on display for Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly, Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, and a host of others. Here are some assorted snippets and thoughts on what people saw. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t there, I’m roughly 11,000 miles away in Beijing right now…)

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First, some ugly news. Rising sophomore Cam Roberson looked to suffer a serious knee injury that could knock the running back spring depth chart to some dangerously low levels.

“We didn’t like the way it looked so they’re going to have to send him for an MRI,” Kelly said after practice. “Generally when you get a knee you know if it’s a hyperextension or a bruise. They need to send him for an MRI. I never like hearing that news. We’ll know something probably on Monday.”

Kelly announced there’ll be walk-on tryouts Monday morning at 6 a.m. where a group of brave students will audition to become target practice, protecting Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray from the punishment that comes from having only three true scholarship running backs on campus until freshman Cam McDaniel arrives this summer.

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All reports, including his own and his head coach’s, suggest that Dayne Crist has recovered almost fully from a season-ending knee injury. More important than his physical recovery is the comfort he’s feeling in the offensive system during his second spring practice under Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar.

“I feel I’m moving very well, I’m really happy with the knee,” Crist said. “I’ve had zero issues so far. I’ve had no problems with my knee. I feel great. I’m cleared for everything right now, it’s just I’m weak.”

Crist’s comfort level in the offense was evident to those watching practice, with Dayne’s command of the short passing game in much better shape than it was early last season. If there was a weakness in Crist’s game last year it was his accuracy, where the sporadic nature on the long throws was understandable, but the short, high-percentage throws that he missed because of touch or accuracy problems gave people pause on whether or not he’s the proper trigger man for this offense.

While Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer’s appearance at the coaching clinic got the most publicity, Philbin’s attendance should signal the staff’s interest in establishing some pro-style elements to take advantage of Crist’s skillset and big-time arm. The Packers have been on the cutting edge of NFL offenses the past few years and quarterback Aaron Rodgers certainly is a great prototype for Crist to model his game after — sneaky running ability and athleticism, as well as a big-time throwing arm.

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Speaking of quarterbacks, it’s clear that Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson are still in the beginning stages of their development, with Hendrix throwing a few interceptions during practice, including a pick six by cornerback Lo Wood. Golson also struggled with some throws, not entirely surprising considering he shouldn’t even be thinking about his senior prom yet.

With four quarterbacks and four different skillsets, it makes sense that Kelly decided to unload the running game from Charley Molnar’s plate and focus strictly on the aerial attack. As Kelly intimated today, he and Molnar have worked harder planning their quarterbacks development than they ever have before.

“We have so many things going on, our scripting is so diverse. I’ve never scripted this way before,” Kelly said, talking about the different plays he’s installing for his four different quarterbacks. “I’m script for four quarterbacks. All in all, I like the four quarterbacks that we have. I wanted to work with four. We’re working with four. And I think we’re getting better every day.”

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Charlie Weis tended to get credit for being an elite recruiter, and the reputation was for good reason. But if you’re looking for another reason to prefer Kelly’s philosophy for bringing in players, Exhibit A is Kona Schwenke.

Many thought Schwenke was a throw-in player at the end of a class. He didn’t have elite offers, and looked like a long term project when he came to campus as a 6-foot-4, 215-pound slinky. Well, fast-forward around nine months, and the Irish have developed a guy that’s gained 70 pounds and now looks to be a full-time part of the defensive end rotation.

Kelly explained a little bit more about the Hawaiian’s incredible physical development.

“We hit him at the right spurt,” Kelly said. “Obviously Coach Longo has done a great job. And Kona has done a great job more than anybody else in taking care of himself and eating the right way. You can see that he’s a pretty big kid that’s going to help us.”

The inexact science of growth spurts, physical maturity and bodily changes among 17 to 19-year-old kids is pretty well known, and one of the best things that Kelly’s system does is look for body types and molds, as opposed to finding fully developed football players. Schwenke’s rapid development is a great example of a guy that would’ve never been on the radar of the previous regime, but fills an immediate role at a position of need for the Irish.

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.